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The magazine article “How to have a conversation” by John McDermott is a personal journey by the writer who wanted to investigate whether the art of conversation could be taught in formal settings. He joins a conversation class with the intention of becoming a great entertainer through skills learnt.
However, he soon realizes that theories and abstract ideas dominate the class. This did not obscure the important lessons he drew from the class about the purpose of conversation. Through the use of rhetorical devices, the author expresses himself vividly, effectively and interestingly.
John McDermott relies on metaphors throughout the article to facilitate the conceptualization of his ideas, which makes his work effective and well understood. Metaphors are a brilliant way of capturing the emotional state of an experience (Ortony and Fainsilber 182). To better understand their use, one can contrast them to literal language. McDermott (12) says “none of my new friends said they wanted to be a raconteur in the Coleridge or the Hitchens mould.”
In this situation, he would have described the state of being a good conversationalist and hoped that his readers could deduce what he meant by that. However, he chooses to use the metaphor “in the Hitchens mould” to capture the quality of being a good conversationalist. Instead of merely describing the conditions of his subject matter, he chose an example of a great conversationalist, like Hitchens that the world knows.
It is for this same reason that he uses the metaphor “We were Boswells, not Johnsons”. He wanted to capture the simplicity and well-meaning intentions of his classmates in one word rather than in a plethora of phrases (University of British Columbia 7). Metaphors have facilitated conceptualization of the writer’s ideas by making the work richer (Your Dictionary 4).
For instance, he states “They faced a white wall that had been attacked by black paint, which had left behind a monochromatic mural.” (McDermott 20). The author sparks interest in his writing by augmenting it with metaphorical language. It would have been less appealing for him to state merely that the classroom had black and white paint. Metaphors thus create a better understanding of what the writer experienced by first drawing the reader’s attention and then clarifying the quality of emotions behind it.
In the article, diction has enabled the writer to sustain interest in the piece thus enriching his work. Words like “raillery” or “raconteur” could have been easily replaced by ‘jest’ or ‘amusing speaker’, respectively, but these would not have elicited the same reaction as the author’s choices (McDermott 5).
The word choices create a positive attitude toward the writer from the readers because they give the impression that he is well-versed with literary knowledge. Since some of these words are not used in everyday language, some readers would have to look them in the dictionary to find their meaning (Britannica 2).
This can be a painstaking experience if the whole piece is filled with such unusual words. However, McDermott did not select and fix these atypical words meaninglessly throughout the paper. He seems to have given them a lot of thought before using them because the words are the most effective for expressing what the author intended. English has a range of synonyms that may be used to describe similar situations. However, these choices still allude to different things (Writer’s Digest 7).
For instance, if the author wanted to mock the American self help model using a clever word, he could have called Americans “pretentious”, “overeager” or “fraudulent”. Instead, he chose to describe them as “charlatans peddling snake oil for the soul” (McDermott 16). This description suggests that American self help groups teach skills that they do not have.
Describing them as overeager would have masked their dishonesty while the world ‘fraudulent’ would have been too confrontational. A pretentious person is not the same as a charlatan because the former focuses on his significance while the latter focuses on his skills and knowledge. Therefore, the author selected the most effective word for expressing what he had in mind. It is laudable that these unique word choices do not detract the audience’s attention from the rest of the text (WiseGeek 20).
is indeed a difficult skill to master, and is a mark of a writer’s accomplishment. Readers who do not know difficult words should be able to understand the overall meaning of the article. This is exactly what one can do in the story. It is possible to deduce meanings from context or overlook the unusual word and still understand the essay (Pinker 75). Overall, the author’s word choice is impressive as it renders credibility to him as an author thus making the work appealing.
The style of sentences in the piece also sustains interest in the story, and explains why one would continue reading it until the end. Periodic sentences are prevalent in various parts of the article. McDermott does this in order to emphasize his subject matter as well as to create suspense in the topic (Pearson Education 21).
It should be noted that periodic sentences have predicates at the beginning alongside main clauses at the end. The method is climatic and ideal for literary writings like the one under analysis. A case in point was “Listening to these stories, I felt slightly disappointed.” (McDermott 18). The author probably used the latter example in order to achieve sentence variety. His piece would have been monotonous if he stuck to conventional sentence constructions.
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Furthermore, the approach builds suspense because one has to wait until the end to find out what the main idea is. For instance, when a reader first looks at the quoted sentence, the person wonders what is it about listening to stories that affects the writer. This builds suspense and causes one to pay attention to the second part of the sentence to complete the thought. In essence, the periodic sentence is only effective if used sparingly, and this is what the author has done.
Aside from periodic sentences, McDermott has employed unconventional sentence structures throughout the piece. For example, he says “What makes a good conversationalist has changed little over the years.” Instead of writing “what makes a good conversationalist has not changed”, he employed a more unconventional but poetic sentence structure. This breaks monotony and improves the writer’s style (University of Ottawa 11).
McDermott appears to defy some grammatical rules thus indicating that he has intertwined formal and informal writing. In one instance, he starts a sentence with a preposition “And to have a bit of fun on a Tuesday night”. (McDermott 33). His disregard for certain rules shows that he is a versatile author who does not confine himself to the status quo. The style of sentences in the piece is critical in compelling readers to read on as there is little monotony.
Rhetorical devices in the article serve more than just aesthetic reasons. The author’s diction renders credibility to him and sustains interest in the work. His varied sentence styles break monotony and establish his status as a versatile writer. McDermott’s metaphors enable better understanding of work by making them more rich and relatable. These devices thus prove that the article is creative, vivid and clearly written.
Britannica. 2013. Definition of diction. 2013. Web.
McDermott, John. 2012. How to have a conversation. 2012. Web.
Ortony, Andrew and Lynn Fainsilber. 2013. The role of metaphors in descriptions of emotions. Web.
Pearson Education. 2010. Loose and periodic sentences. 2010. Web.
Pinker, Simon. The stuff of thought: Language as a window in human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
University of British Columbia. 2013. Rhetorical analysis: Critical writing. 2013. Web.
University of Ottawa. 2013. The order of a sentence. 2013. Web.
WiseGeek. 2013. What is the role of diction in literature?. 2013. Web.
Writer’s Digest. 2013. The importance of diction. 2008. Web.
Your Dictionary. 2013. Metaphor examples. 2013. Web.